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September 1, 2008

Over the next three weeks – from Sept. 1 to 20 – the First Reading at daily Mass will be taken from St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Perhaps it would be appropriate if I interrupt this series of articles on St. Paul to make a few remarks on 1 Corinthians, one of Paul's most popular letters.

The popularity of 1 Corinthians may be due in part to the fact that Corinth has similarities to many cities in the Western world today. It was a major port city with a thriving commercial life and exposure to people from different cultures. Perhaps the openness that often is a product of an enterprising and cosmopolitan society also introduced problems into the local Church at Corinth.

Catholic biblical scholar Eugene LaVerdiere says the problems faced by the Corinthian Church were due to "a tendency to individualistic self-expression and lack of effective and recognized leadership."

As well, Paul knew this Christian community intimately, having been its founder and having lived with the Corinthians for a couple of years.


At first glance, 1 Corinthians appears to be a hodge-podge of topics. Paul tackles a potpourri of issues - love, resurrection, incest, spiritual gifts, the Eucharist, factionalism, whether to eat food offered to idols, how to handle lawsuits and which Christian preacher is the best.

The Church at Corinth certainly had its problems and it may seem that Paul's letter to it, written in Ephesus, was an effort to wade in and solve them all. In the course of that, almost by happenstance, he left us with a beautiful description of love and a theology of the Church as the Body of Christ.

However, 1 Corinthians is not so disjointed as all that. The authors of the Navarre Bible commentary note, "The letter is not simply a series of answers to questions raised; St. Paul always solves the problems raised in the light of faith."

A strong argument can be made that the linchpin of the whole 1 Corinthians letter can be found in its concluding discussion in chapter 15 about the resurrection of the body. Properly understood, the resurrection puts all the other topics discussed in the letter into a full perspective.

Resurrection for Paul, it must be emphasized, is not pie in the sky when you die. The notion of the immortality of the soul – that when one dies, some part of the person survives – is a pagan idea. The Christian teaching is that the person really does die and then, through no power of their own, is given new life. Perhaps the Christian teaching was repulsive for the Greeks who disdained the body and valued the mind as something purer, less tainted by the earth.

For Paul, there is a continuity between the present life and life transformed through the resurrection. The new world order is built out of the efforts of the saints in the present age, but those efforts are burnished clean of any sinful attachments and are transfigured in God's new world of truth and life, holiness and grace, justice and peace.

(You can find a beautiful description of this Catholic teaching in the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, no. 39.)

The basic problem with the Corinthian Christians was that they were too focused on the present and not enough on the new world order that God had promised and that would fulfill the Scriptures. Because of that unspiritual orientation, they were squabbling over personalities, taking their disputes to pagan law courts and trying to prove that they were purer than others by refusing to eat food offered to idols.


Paul challenged them to become oriented towards post-resurrection life, to live in love and to see the Church not as a human organization, but as the living Body of Christ. He holds out a stirring vision, at the core of which is faith in the resurrection.

Biblical scholar N.T. Wright maintains that, in Paul's view, "What the Corinthians need is a strong dose of what Paul will set out in 15:20-28: the coming day when the kingdom of the Messiah will be complete, when all that opposes the true god has been defeated, when this god is seen at last to be God, when he is 'all in all'" (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 286).

The Corinthians need a vision of the new world that will be and who they will be in that world so that they can act appropriately today.

Once they get that vision, Wright notes, they will not be hung up on which Christian preacher to follow or will not make a big deal of eating food offered to idols so as to retreat "into a 'safe' sphere beyond the reach of contamination."

They will see the unity of the Church as crucial because it anticipates "the perfect harmony of the resurrection world." They will also see love as "the ultimate bridge, in terms of human character, from present Christian living into the future kingdom."

In this light, what we do in this life is a harbinger of the life to come. So, Paul concludes his chapter on the resurrection with a counsel that could carry the entire letter: "My beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain" (15:58).

One can understand 1 Corinthians in other ways than through the lens of the resurrection as I have suggested. The themes of love and the unity of the Church are also central to this letter. But as you read it - either at Mass or in your private reading over the next three weeks – try to see the underlying unity of the letter. First Corinthians is a unified whole and not a potpourri.

(Note: Before the current liturgical year ends on Nov. 29, daily Mass Scripture readings will also be taken from St. Paul's letters to the Galatians, Ephesians and Philippians. I will also provide brief commentaries on those letters at appropriate times.)